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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: On reaching Clause 11, I read it two or three times. I could hardly believe that the Government were bringing forward such a proposal. It seemed amazing to me then, and still does, that on the basis of local government elections in certain parts of England and Wales, and experiments conducted in those elections, the Secretary of State should seek the power by order, even an affirmative order, to roll out these experiments not just over the whole of England and Wales, but also for parliamentary elections, European Parliament elections, elections to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, and elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and local government elections in Northern Ireland.
I am not entirely sure what has happened to poor old Scotland as regards local government but it seems unbelievable that, on the basis of experiments conducted only in England and Wales, there should be a roll out in Northern Ireland local elections and in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, the Welsh Assembly elections and the Scottish parliamentary elections besides the European parliamentary elections.
On studying the clause further I thought that it might be arguable--I still use those words--that the affirmative order would be sufficient for rolling out over the whole of England and Wales the experiments conducted in local government in England and Wales; in other words, in respect of elections of a similar kind in the same part of the country. I therefore tabled my raft of amendments which would achieve pretty much
That leads me to the position that one either amends the clause along the lines of the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, or those that I have proposed, or a mixture of both. Alternatively, one takes the advice of my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway and votes against the whole clause and removes it from the Bill. I shall be interested what the Minister has to say.
I then thought to myself that the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee would not like that. Indeed, it did not. I am not surprised. Some Members of the Committee may know that I was one of the founder members of that committee, now the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, which probably explains why I missed out the word "Deregulation" in first mentioning it. We started off by looking at secondary legislation in a very serious way, considering whether it was right to do something by that method or by the affirmative or negative procedures.
Shortly after the committee was established, I was asked to join the government and became the recipient of some vigorous comments from the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. I believe I am right in saying that I took all the criticisms on board. I believe I am also right in saying that the last government, of which I was a member, took all the criticisms of that committee on board and attempted to accommodate them. It is fair to say the present Government have done the same. I therefore say to the Minister that we expect the Government on this issue to take the opinions of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee to heart and make the necessary changes.
It is only fair that I should conclude by simply reading out what the committee said in order to reinforce the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. When referring to such powers, it states in paragraph 25 of the fourth report of 9th February:
The Government do not dismiss such views lightly and I would therefore like to explain to noble Lords why the Government believe that Clause 11, in its present form, should remain part of the Bill. As noble Lords are aware, Clause 10 of the Bill allows local authorities to apply to run pilot schemes at particular local elections. All such pilot schemes will need to be fully evaluated and, as I said earlier, a copy of the evaluation report must be sent to the Secretary of State within three months of the election concerned. I am happy to repeat the undertaking that has already been given that all such evaluation reports will be published. We shall certainly place copies in the Libraries of both Houses, so this will be a fully open and transparent process.
I ask noble Lords to consider what would happen if a particular innovation is a great success. Perhaps it has been tried in several local authorities of different demographic compositions and in each case turn-out has increased and the evaluation has shown that the electorates concerned welcomed the innovation. In such cases, we would want to apply the change more widely as quickly as possible. After all, speed is of the essence.
This is not only a theoretical argument. As many noble Lords will know, some 20 local authorities--both metropolitan and district councils--have applied to run early voting trials at the local elections in May of this year. The schemes have been well thought out and planned and, of course, will be fully evaluated. All told, several million voters will be given the opportunity to vote early. I contend that this is a large enough sample on which to make a judgment as to whether early voting does indeed make it easier for people to vote and, perhaps more important, whether it encourages people who would not otherwise have voted to do so.
If this clause were to be removed from the Bill, we could not introduce early voting or any other innovations that have been successfully piloted, except by introducing further primary legislation. Noble Lords know very well that demand for legislative slots always exceeds the amount of parliamentary time available. Who knows when my right honourable friend the Home Secretary might be able to secure a slot for the necessary legislation? I dare say that those who had already tried out the successful innovations would find it difficult to understand why they would have to wait for them to be available at other elections.
It is our hope that we shall have a steady stream of pilots over the next few years. It is quite possible that, each year, one or more successful innovations will emerge. However, the chances of securing several legislative slots in the next few years to apply such successful innovations more widely seems remote, to put it mildly. Instead, we have provided that any innovations which are shown to be a success can be
Several of these amendments suggest that, because pilot schemes have been tried out in local elections, it should be possible only to roll them out to local elections; and indeed the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee has suggested something along similar lines. However, I cannot see the logic of this. If a particular innovation is a success and if it is popular with the public, why should its use be restricted only to certain types of election?
There would also be practical problems with this approach. In many areas, local elections take place much more frequently than any other kind of election, so the electorate would get used to being able to vote early, electronically, or over several days, using whatever method had been chosen. Imagine the confusion among electors if, when the general election came, they suddenly found that they could only vote in the traditional way. Many might well be caught unawares and might find themselves unable to vote at all.
It gets worse. Imagine that various innovations have been rolled out to local elections and so applied--perhaps, for example, to Brighton and Hove, a council close to my heart. However, imagine that it so happened that on the same day a by-election was scheduled to take place in one of the Brighton parliamentary constituencies. The effect of that could be that electors in one half of Brighton and Hove would be able to vote using the new, improved and innovative electoral procedures, while voters in the other half would not. That strikes me as being a recipe for confusion. For those reasons, we do not believe that a partial roll-out option is a sensible one.
The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee also suggested that the electoral commission should have a role in determining whether pilot schemes should be rolled out. I can assure noble Lords that that is the intention of the Government. As I have explained in responding to previous amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, we do not believe that we can refer to the electoral commission in this Bill since that body does not yet exist; the Bill before us is the earlier of the two Bills.
However, I can assure noble Lords that we shall be bringing forward an amendment to the other electoral Bill--the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill--to provide that the Secretary of State will only be able to make an order under Clause 11(1) of that Bill--rolling out a pilot scheme--on the recommendation of the electoral commission. That is quite unambiguous; a roll out will be able to take place only if the electoral commission has recommended it.
Finally, I should point out that the notion of pilot schemes originated with the Working Party on Electoral Procedures. It is worth quoting from paragraph 3.1.14 of the working party's final report in which it states:
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